Lines and Colors art blog

Constable's oil sketches
The brilliant English landscape painter John Constable, along with his contemporary J.M.W. Turner, are sometimes viewed as precursors to French Impressionism, and, by extension, the generations of modern painting that followed.

I think it’s even more interesting to consider the line from Constable through the outdoor paintings of Eugene Boudin, the Barbizon school, the Impressionists and their successors like the American Impressionists, and forward to the immediate, painterly works of best contemporary plein air painters.

Even more than in Constable’s finished studio paintings, which can be quite painterly (e.g. zoom way in on “The Hay Wain”), this line is most evident in his preparatory oil sketches which were painted out of doors — and of the local everyday landscape, not of exotic Mediterranean vistas or romanticized classical tableaux.

This practice, at the time, was as radical as the Impressionists’ adoption of similar plein air methods and their rejection of academic tradition some 50 years later.

Constable in his sketches not only sought the truth of nature, but the fleeting effects of light and shadow, the immediate here and now of the visual world. He captured these effects, “impressions”, if you will, in increasingly confident strokes of his brush as his career progressed. He also evidenced a mastery of nuanced color in these quickly realized studies, in which even seemingly plain surfaces and simple areas of greenery reveal multiple subtle hues.

All of these characteristics carry forward into what we now appreciate as among the best qualities of the French Impressionists and the painters that followed them into plein air painting, and their representation of the visual world as they perceived it directly.

Constable worked in oil outdoors on small pieces of canvas, board or prepared paper, which he pinned to the lid of his painting box, also anticipating the modern practice of pochade box painting. He later would frequently mount some of these sketches to more durable supports.

These were intended in his early years as practice and training, and as he became more accomplished, as preparatory studies for his studio landscapes.

I’ve see a few of Constable’s oil sketches before, and been impressed, but not as much as I was yesterday when I got to see Constable: Oil sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum, a traveling exhibition that is in its last day today, June 10, 2012, at the Princeton University Art Museum (it then moves to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN). The show includes graphite, watercolor and pen and wash drawings in addition to the oils.

The Victoria and Albert museum has limited resources online in association with the exhibit, but you can search the museum’s website for “Constable oil sketches” or “Constable Studies” to find more. Click on “View Details” to see the work’s dedicated page, from you can launch an enlargement.

If you’re willing to sign up for an account, with full address and phone information, the V&A museum will provide downloadable high-resolution images of many works in the collection. (I found it worth the trouble, just to get copies of Constable’s oil sketches for my own study.)

In addition, there are other resources on the web. The Yale Center for British Art (search for “Constable”,) has the greatest number I’ve found, in reasonably high resolution. The Google Art Project has a number of his sketches (not from this show) online in high resolution , and there are a few on the site of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There is a book accompanying the exhibition, which I found well done and worthwhile, though the color is not true to the originals in that the images have been brightened, perhaps to bring out details or create an approximation of what the sketches may have looked like fresh from Constable’s brush, or maybe just to make the book more appealing, I don’t know.

I found the same effect in the reproductions on the V&A website reproductions (for Photoshop buffs, try moving your midrange output levels down to about 75% for a closer approximation of how they looked to me in the show).

There is also an iPad app (more info here), produced by ArtFinder, a third party in cooperation with the V&A, that provides a less expensive electronic version of the book. Though reproduced accurately (compared to the book, not the originals), I found the app problematic in that the enlargement feature doesn’t work on my new Retina Display version iPad. I don’t know if others are experiencing this. [Addendum: this has been addressed in a subsequent release and now works fine.] ArtFinder has a selection of works from the app (and the exhibition) online, though not high resolution.

I’ve listed some additional resources below, within which you can find reproductions of Constable’s oil sketches in particular.

Constable: Oil sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum will be on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN from June 23 to September 30, 2012.

Seeing many of his oil sketches in a group, and from various points in Constable’s career, struck me as essentially a master class in plein air painting, by the artist who essentially pioneered the modern concept of the practice.

[Update, 2015: James Gurney has written a terrific post on Constable’s Outdoor Painting Materials.]


9 responses to “Constable’s oil sketches”

  1. Lindas pinturas estou me encantando de tanta beleza” Brasil’

  2. Fabulous stuff.. The English writer and painter Patrick Heron once told me he thought Constable was the first of the Modernist painters because of the way he treated his materials and their unique characteristics… the thickness of oil paint being scumbled across the weave of the canvas in sketches and as you imply the ‘finished’ works… Yes, he was a fabulous painter…

  3. Well spoken. I am an admirer of Constable and enjoy finding what I can about his technique and finding good sites with high quality images of his work. I’m working my way up to large landscapes:). Let me know if you have any Constable book recommendations- with nice images more than text in importance.

    1. Thanks, Thimgan. Unfortunately, I don’t have a personal recommendation for a general book on Constable’s work, I haven’t seen one that stands out in particular. I do like the book that accompanied this exhibit, however, if you are interested in his oil sketches.

  4. gail buxton Avatar
    gail buxton

    I think you may know the answer to a question I have long had. How well have the oil sketches on paper survived? How did he prepare the paper. How did he mount it later.
    Finally, since you think the paintings have darkened, do ou know how he could have prevented it.
    Thanks for all the info. Really enjoyed it.

    1. I believe those on paper were on prepared paper (coated with gesso sizing), and the ones I saw have held up very well. He also worked on small scraps of canvas.

      They did not appear to have gone dark (though I have no way tell); my comment was that the reproductions in the book published by the V&A were too light compared to the rich darks of the originals as I saw them in the exhibition. They appear to have been artificially lightened for the book. I was trying to guess a reason for this and surmised that perhaps the conservators knew something about some darkening of the originals, but I suspect that they just lightened them to make the images in the book brighter and more appealing to modern audiences.

      You can find some contemporary info on oil painting on paper here: and here: and some info on mounting paper to board here:

      I feel oil paintings on paper should be considered temporary and fragile, however — even if those by Constable and others have survived and been preserved. He was sketching, remember, not creating finished works. All works on paper (drawings, watercolors, prints) are inherently fragile and subject to light damage compared to oil paintings on canvas, linen or board.

      Unless you are looking for the texture of a particular paper, I think canvas pads are a better contemporary option for inexpensive oil sketching. Sheets from canvas pads can later be mounted to boards or even stretchers.

      There are now papers prepared and intended specifically for oil painting, but I haven’t tried them. One is Arches Oil Paper:

  5. gail buxton Avatar
    gail buxton

    Many thanks. I will be a regular on your wonderful site.

  6. Eveline Jones Avatar
    Eveline Jones

    I have a painting of the HAYWAIN on board signed John Constable my mother had it for many many years it’s in a plain frame my lovely mother always believed it to be a Constable but because it’d on board believes this to be true I now have it my mum sadly left us in 1979 can you enlighten me please ????

    1. Difficult to believe it could be anything but a reproduction.